We Are Water

By Wally Lamb

(Harper, $29.99, 576 pages)

Who is this author?

Few Connecticut authors are better known or better loved than bestselling novelist Wally Lamb, who was once an unknown high school teacher and later a UConn professor. Lamb was honored by Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club, which catapulted his 1992 debut novel, “She’s Come Undone,” about a severely overweight young woman’s emotional struggles, to the best-seller stratosphere: a No. 1 spot on the New York Times list. His second novel, 1998’s “I Know This Much Is True,” about troubled twin brothers in Connecticut, also hit that mark. Two more successes were the novel “The Hour I First Believed,” which combined the Columbine murders and some complex Connecticut characters and history, and the delightfully humorous Christmas in parochial school novella, “Wishin’ and Hopin.”  Lamb‘s books have garnered multiple awards, and he has also earned praise for editing two compilations of essays, “Couldn’t Keep It to Myself” and “I’ll Fly Away” by women prisoners in his writing workshops at York Correctional Institution in Niantic,. Those books made headlines when the state went after one prize-winning contributor, tried to shut down the writing workshop and later moved to ban the books – efforts that ultimately were abandoned.

What is this book about?

All of Lamb’s novels involve emotional conflicts, often mixed with issues of race, class, artistic endeavor and family dynamics that are braided into the main story. “We Are Water” continues in that rich vein.

In it, an “outsider” artist and long-married mother of three, Anna Oh, falls in love with the Manhattan art dealer who has launched her career. And that new love is a woman. When their wedding is planned to take place in Three Rivers, the fictional Connecticut town based on Norwich, New London and Willimantic where Lamb sets his stories, problems ensue that uncover difficult family secrets, and this family has plenty. The novel also involves a character based on a real outsider artist, Ellis Ruley, who was black, lived in Norwich and died mysteriously, bringing issues of race, prejudice and violence into the story.

Why you’ll like it:

Lamb has the uncommon ability to write believably and powerfully from the perspective of his female characters, which is a huge plus for an author with a large following of women readers. He is at home with the nuances of emotional turmoil and the difficulties that even loving couples encounter in their relationships. He can write about such things seriously and movingly, but also can inject humor into situations and dialogue. And he is fascinated with Connecticut history, both past and  present, such as the Norwich flood that figures in this book. He also is skillful at writing from multiple points of view, as he does here. It’s always a pleasure to read work by someone with such talents, and while most of his novels are long, they are stories that won’t easily let you go.

What others are saying:

Library Journal says in a starred review: “We are water: “fluid, flexible when we have to be. But strong and destructive, too.” That’s evident in this emotionally involving new novel from the author of She’s Come Undone. At its heart is the Oh family: Orion, half Chinese and half Italian, a psychologist who never knew his father and has taken early retirement from his university rather than face trumped-up charges of sexual harassment; his wife, Annie, a shy, successful creator of angry installation art who survived foster care and carries a dark secret; and their three children: willful aspiring actress Marissa and the twins, goodhearted Ariane and born-again rebel Andrew. As the novel opens, Annie has thrown everyone into turmoil by leaving Orion for her chic, sophisticated art dealer, Viveca, and even as the new couple plan a wedding in the Ohs’ hometown, Three Rivers, CT, past and present hurts unfold in chapters told deftly from alternate viewpoints. Annie’s self-doubts are particularly affecting, as is the satisfyingly predictable unfolding of her secret; Orion gracefully comes to terms with his limitations and his future. Meanwhile, Viveca’s interest in a painting found on the Oh property links to the story of a black artist that intriguingly frames the novel. VERDICT Clear and sweetly flowing; highly recommended.

Says Kirkus Reviews: “A searching novel of contemporary manners–and long-buried secrets–by seasoned storyteller Lamb. …Lamb’s latest opens almost as a police procedural, its point of view that of one Gualtiero Agnello (hint: agnello means “lamb” in Italian), rife with racial and sexual overtones. Fast-forward five decades, and it’s a different world, the POV now taken by an artist named Annie Oh, sharp-eyed and smart, who is attending to details of her upcoming nuptials to her partner and agent, Viveca, who has chosen a wedding dress with a name, Gaia. Notes Annie, reflecting on the Greek myth underlying the name, “[c]haos, incest, monsters, warring siblings: it’s a strange name for a wedding dress.” That thought foreshadows much of Lamb’s theme, which inhabits the still-waters-run-deep school of narrative: Annie has attained some renown, is apparently adjusted to divorce from her husband, a clinical psychologist named Orion (Greek myth again, though he’s Chinese) Oh, and is apparently bound for a later life of happiness. Ah, but then reality intrudes in various forms, from Viveca’s request for a pre-nup to the long-suppressed past, in which natural disaster meets familial dysfunction. The story is elaborate and unpredictable, and the use of multiple narrators is wise, considering that there are a few Rashomon moments in this leisurely unfolding narrative. The characters are at once sympathetic and flawed and mostly, by the end, self-aware …We all know that life is tangled and messy. Still, in reminding readers of this fact, Lamb turns in a satisfyingly grown-up story, elegantly written.”

“Wally Lamb’s latest, We Are Water, works the same magic as his 1992 Oprah-anointed breakthrough, She’s Come Undone, capturing a snapshot of modern life (class struggle, racial violence) through the lens of a family faced with jarring news from its matriarchal figure,”  says Out.com.

“A tragic event can ripple through a family for generations. After 27 years of marriage and three children, artist Anna Oh has left her husband, Orion, because she’s fallen in love with her agent, Viveca. That would be plenty of drama for any family, but as Wally Lamb masterfully unfolds the tale, in We Are Water, it becomes clear that a fatal accident half a century earlier is what set the Ohs’ chain of events in motion. Lamb takes his time, peeling back the layers of family secrets and lies. He uses multiple narrative voices with varying degrees of success (reading the point of view of a pedophile is more than a little uncomfortable). Yet despite its occasional unevenness, this family saga is hard to put down. B+.” says Entertainment Weekly.

When is it available?

“We Are Water” can be borrowed from the Barbour, Park and Ropkins branches of the Hartford Public Library.

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